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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: For young soccer player, 19-mile bike ride to a dream

Tim Kronenwetter had plenty on his mind. For years, he has served as organizer and chairman of the Exceptional Seniors all-stars week at Sahlen's Sports Park in Elma, where many of the best high school soccer players in Western New York spend a couple of days trying out for a "senior game," played on a November Sunday.

This year’s event was a few weeks ago, providing college coaches another chance to look at local players. Before each tryout, Kronenwetter arrived early, to get ready. On a harsh and wet afternoon, he was inside the building, near the front door, when a teenager came in pushing a bicycle. He asked Kronenwetter if he could leave it there until the tryout was over.

“Sure,” Kronenwetter said. “I’ll keep an eye on it.” Papers in hand, Kronenwetter was ready to go back to his work when some instinct told him to ask the kid where he lived.

“Black Rock,” said Cristino Almonte.

Kronenwetter let that sink in. The teenager, a student at Buffalo's Math Science Technology Preparatory School at Seneca,  rode 19 miles from school to reach the tryout, in the sleet, then rode about the same distance to get home.

In all his years around sports, for Kronenwetter, this was something new.

“I do not have another story like this,” he said. “No way.”

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Almonte did not just do it once. He made some combination of the ride on the first two days of tryouts. On the second day he arrived with a flat tire. To make it home, he rode the bike to the nearest bus stop, and caught a ride from there.

On Friday, Nov. 2, in one of the great moments of his life, he learned he had been picked to play in the final game. That meant he woke up the next day, at his Black Rock home, and pedaled again to Elma for a scrimmage.

That Sunday, for the game itself, Megan and John Looney of East Amherst – parents from Williamsville whose son Joseph is a standout player – asked Almonte if they could pick him up and drive him home.

“I am a big believer that if you want to really succeed at something in life,” John Looney said, “you’ve got to want it and need it the way you need oxygen.”

This 18-year-old, he said, embodies that belief.

In the weeks since the event, the story spread quietly within the soccer community, providing Almonte with a kind of quiet legend.

Cristino Almonte at the Math Science Technology Preparatory School at Seneca: A dream of playing soccer in college. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

Almonte, the youngest of five siblings, said he became fascinated with soccer as a child. He often watched young men from refugee families playing pickup at LaSalle Park, then listened to their stories about how they learned the sport. One of his best friends at the time, a kid born in Burma, used to amaze Almonte with the control he had over the ball.

“I just connected in so many places,” said Almonte, who fell in love with the game. When he arrived at MST, and coach Roberto Calvaresi came looking for freshmen interested in signing up, Almonte was ready.

“He’s been a great player for us, a big part of this team for four years,” Calvaresi said. Almonte began his high school career as a defender. Two years ago, MST’s regular goalkeeper graduated. Calvaresi had a gap at one of the most challenging jobs on the field.

Almonte gave up a position he preferred to help the team at keeper, an example that underlines why he served as a captain for two years.

"These kids understand that things in life don't come easy," Calvaresi said, "and if you want something, you have to go for it."

When the time came for the all-star game at Sahlen's, Calvaresi submitted Almonte's name. The first night of tryouts was Halloween, and Calvaresi has little kids who wanted to trick or treat. Almonte told his coach not to worry, that he had a way to get to the tryouts.

What he did not tell him was that Almonte’s mother, Lisa Fonseca, a single mom, had to work at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and could not give him a ride. Almonte did not mention how the cost of an Uber or a taxi was way beyond his budget, and how the timing of the bus did not work out for tryouts.

The option was riding his bike.

“I had Google maps on my phone,” Almonte said, in a matter-of-fact way.

Fonseca, his mother, said that choice did not surprise her. She said Almonte struggled with attention deficit in the classroom, as a child. He overcame those problems through sheer determination, to the point where she said he now looks forward to college.

"He's dedicated," Fonseca said. "When he wants something, he gets it."

To Almonte, the bike rides were worth it. He was thrilled his coach gave him a chance to be part of all-star week. Almonte leaves it to adults like Megan and John Looney to talk about how frigid he must have been as cold rain soaked into his clothes, or the raw intensity of riding on dark roads while trucks blasted past.

The organizers sat down after Thursday’s practice to make the final picks for Sunday’s games. “Just so you know,” Kronenwetter told them, “this one keeper from the city rode his bike out here.”

For a moment, he allowed that to sink in.

Doug Curella, who coached one of the all-star teams, already knew about Almonte. He had used a pump earlier in the week to try without luck to help the young man with his flat tire. He told Kronenwetter he wanted Almonte on his team.

“It was incredible,” Curella said of Almonte’s commitment. In a world where so many players receive deep and casual support with every competitive step needed to prepare for college, here was a kid who rode a bicycle almost 20 miles, in the rain, for a tryout – then turned around and rode another 20 to get home.

Saturday, during a scrimmage, Kronenwetter sat with the Looneys, old friends, and told them the tale.

Megan Looney was stunned. She and her husband did not have a vehicle big enough that day to give Almonte a ride home, with his bike. But she said there was no question: Sunday, they were giving him a lift.

When the couple approached Almonte, he was initially reluctant, fearing he was making them go far out of their way. He had no idea, Megan said, of how he “amazed us with his dedication and devotion,” of how he brought a new dimension to the entire tournament.

The next morning, when the Looneys arrived at his home, Almonte was waiting at the door. Their son and Almonte ended up on different teams. In an outcome with a certain poetry, Joe Looney scored an important goal for his squad late in the game, while Almonte did well in his time in goal as his team pulled out the win.

On the drive to Black Rock, Almonte told the Looneys he hopes to go to college and continue to play soccer, and that he is already thinking about studying law. As he spoke, during a ride that took a solid 25 minutes in a car, an impressed Megan glanced out the window at the city whirling past.

At 18, this kid was changing the whole notion of distance.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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